Last summer, I had the pleasure of traveling through the Maritimes with my family – from Prince Edward Island and the north shore of New Brunswick to Cape Breton Island and the south shore of Nova Scotia – a long way from our home on the west coast of Canada. Our experiences there, as with our trip across Newfoundland years ago, reenforced for me how fortunate I am to live in such a vast and beautiful country. Along with such personal musings, one particular experience there – in Kejimkujik Seaside National Park with my 14 year old son – caused me to reflect on my professional assumptions and wonder whether even my most well-intentioned and well-articulated learning activities and assessment criteria might restrict rather than further my students’ learning.
Hiking the well-defined trail through the dense shrubs and down to the rocky seashore, we came across a vast array of Inukshuks – stone monuments traditionally constructed by the Inuit – created by previous hikers. They looked stunning against the great expanse of the Atlantic coast. Owen was enchanted by what he saw, and enthusiastically decided to add his own Inukshuk to the collection.
He began by securing, with boulders, the stick he’d found along the trail, so that it stuck upward, pointing toward the sky. He then set about carefully selecting stones and balancing them in the various crooks of the stick. As the rocks repeatedly tumbled to the ground, I explained that Inukshuks are built by balancing rocks upon other rocks and his stick was making the task unnecessarily complicated. I tried to engage him in building a more conventional Inukshuk with me, but he soon lost interest and returned to the task he had begun. As I watched him, my frustrations – with both his disregard of my instructions and offers of assistance as well as his lack of understanding of the activity (or so I thought!) or at least his futile attempt to defy the laws of gravity (wrong again!!) – shifted to admiration for his propensity to approach this task in his own way . . . in short, his propensity to innovate.
Despite the falling rocks, and contrary to the many exemplars of more traditional Inukshuks that surrounded him, Owen doggedly persevered, carefully replacing the stones in varying configurations until they finally held. I even joined him, careful to let him be my guide rather than the other way around. Watching Owen push through his frustrations to joyfully create an Inukshuk like none I’d seen before, it suddenly occurred to me that I was witnessing the difference between learning through imitation and learning through innovation. As I scanned the dozens and dozens of Inukshuks that dotted this section of the coastline, only one featured a prominent stick on which stones were carefully balanced. Rather than exercising his creativity within the confines of some predetermined definition of an Inukshuk’s overarching form, Owen was inventing a unique form of his own. While he was inspired by the examples of others, he wasn’t bound by the paradigm in which they operated, stepping beyond its confines to approach the task/problem/activity in a new way, producing a unique result.
In education, there is much to be said regarding the benefits of setting clear criteria for a learning activity, so our students have a good understanding of the goals and expectations. Yet in doing so, I wonder, how often do we unknowingly limit their opportunities for innovation and restrict their creativity? In considering this question, perhaps what’s most important for educators is to first clarify our own understanding of the purpose of the learning activity in the first place. In my own teaching practice, I have had a tendency not only to clarify the overarching learning objectives with my students, but also to spend an inordinate amount of time constructing (or better still, co-constructing with my students) very specific assessment criteria. Doing so is a time-consuming process, and I think that through such specificity I may unwittingly reduce expectations of my students to some sort of imitation of an ideal form already pre-determined in my mind rather than opening up possibilities for their creativity and innovation.
There are definitely times when it’s incumbent upon us as educators to teach our students very specific skills, and we should embrace doing so in a skillful manner, taking pride in our students’ growth from one level of proficiency to the next. If a music teacher were to continually let her students play freeform, with little attention to skill development, the result might be more a painful cacophony of noise than something of musical beauty. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, about the broad array of learning activities that take place in our schools well beyond the music classes (while sharing my belief that we could all learn much from the approaches of our finest music teachers!), in that there are many academic equivalents to teaching both the fundamental as well as the more refined skills of musicianship – academic skills that need to be learned and refined to progress to higher levels of proficiency. However, there are also times – like the improvised solos that are often the highlights of our school’s music concerts – for our students to engage in more open inquiry and freeform expression, uninhibited by our overly prescriptive expectations.
While I consider myself to be a fairly creative person, it never would have occurred to me to approach the creation of an Inukshuk in such a unique way. Any approach I might have taken was limited by my own conventional understanding of what an Inukshuk is supposed to look like. Yet if the next generation is to solve the most pressing problems we face – such as those of inequality, hunger, climate change, and war – they will need to think beyond our current paradigms, approaching the world’s problems in new and unconventional ways. Letting go of our pre-determined learning activities and assessment criteria (or better still, embedding inquiry and creativity into those learning activities and expectations) can open up opportunities for unconventional thinking and authentic exploration, empowering our students to move beyond imitation to innovation . . . and result – as my son taught me that day on the east coast of Canada – in something more beautiful than we’d imagined in the first place!
Written by Ken Andrews, December 2016
What do you do to foster innovation rather than imitation? You’re welcome to share your story/insights/reflections in the comments section below.
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